Choosing the right lawyer for you and your case is essential if you want the best possible outcome at a reasonable price. It is no different than finding a reputable surgeon, contractor, or accountant. Divorces can be expensive depending on the complexity of the issues and if the parties are amicable or are disputing custody, visitation, support, alimony, and property distribution among other matters.
You need to do your due diligence in choosing an attorney who will be handling an emotional event in your life with decisions that could affect how you live for many years if not the rest of your life. To help with the process, here are some questions you should ask of a Massachusetts divorce lawyer.
- Do you handle divorce or family law exclusively?
Many lawyers practice more than one area of the law such as criminal defense, personal injury, employment, and divorce among others. While these practitioners may have at least minimal competence in many areas, choosing a specialist or a lawyer who practices just one area usually means they have intimate knowledge in their specialty, are up to date on the latest developments, and are familiar with the judges who will preside over your case, the court rules, and how your case is likely to be resolved.
- How much will my case cost?
Unless your case is uncontested, no two cases are alike, and no lawyer can or should guarantee a certain outcome or cost. Divorce lawyers operate on a per hour basis and will ask for a retainer fee upfront to be deposited in a trust account and drawn upon as the attorney works on your case. Any unused amount is returned to you. Filing fees are around $215, although there are additional costs including service of process. If you are indigent, you can file an Affidavit of Indigency to have the fee waived. In some cases, we can ask the court for the opposing party to pay your attorney’s fees or some portion of it. Your cost generally depends on the conduct and cooperation of the other party and how quickly the parties can agree on the issues. In a contested case, you can expect fees to be at least $5,000 to $8,000 and more. Our office offers reduced rates based on your financial situation for representation on a limited basis. Finally, ask for a copy of the retainer agreement so you can get a full understanding of the legal fees and costs involved.
- What associations do you belong to, what awards or accreditations do you have, and how much experience do you have?
Belonging to various community and legal-related organizations gives you an idea of the attorney’s commitment to family law, to helping people in need, and to staying abreast of developments in the law and in the local courts. Attorneys who have years of experience will usually have addressed the issues in your own case and can give you a reasonable assessment of both parties’ positions.
- Are there alternatives to divorce such as a legal separation?
There is no “legal separation” in Massachusetts but you can get a legal separation agreement that should be filed with the court for enforcement purposes. You can also obtain a Judgment of Support where you remain married, but all the issues found in a divorce case are addressed. These are:
- Child support
- Division of assets and debts
- Which party remains in the marital home
- Order of protection if necessary
- Are there alternatives to litigation?
All divorce lawyers are required to inform clients about mediation and alternative dispute resolution before filing a 1B divorce case, which is a contested no-fault case. Mediation is where the parties and attorneys meet with a neutral party to compromise on issues, and try to resolve differences. ADR can include mediation, arbitration, and collaborative divorce.
- What is a no-fault divorce?
You have a choice in Massachusetts to choose either no-fault or establish “grounds” for your divorce. In a no-fault case, one or both parties merely state that there is an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage without the need to present detailed evidence. If you choose a fault ground for divorce, you will need to present evidence. There are 7 grounds for divorce, which are utter desertion for a year, cruel and abusive treatment, adultery, impotence, one party has been sentenced to prison for 5-years or more, there is excessive use of drugs or alcohol, or the other party has refused to provide support. There is usually little advantage to be gained in choosing a particular ground even if custody is contested because parental fitness, conduct, and character is considered in determining what is in the best interest of the children.
- How do you communicate with your clients?
Your lawyer should allow you to call and email whenever you have a question, and return your communication the same day or the next. Ask if this is the lawyer’s policy and is included in the retainer agreement.
- Can I file for divorce here if my spouse lives out-of-state or in another county, and where?
You are eligible to file in Massachusetts if:
- You have lived here for one year.
- The conduct constituting the reason for the divorce occurred here and you have lived as a married couple anywhere in the state.
- Filing is done in the county where you and your spouse lived together if either of you still lives there. If not, then file in the county where you live or the other party lives.
- How long does a divorce take?
If your case is uncontested, the minimum wait is 120-days after you file. After filing a Joint Petition, a court date or hearing is scheduled. After the hearing, the judge has 30-days to issue the Judgment for Divorce Nisi. Once issued, there is a waiting period of 90-days before it becomes final or absolute.
In contested matters, you can expect a wait of up to one-year and even longer. Hearing are not scheduled for at least 6-months after filing though there are often extensions. A contested case requires discovery where the parties exchange documents, answer written questions under oath, and are subject to being deposed. If there are experts such as accountants, child psychologists, and others, the process can be lengthy and last for more than one year.
- Is counseling advisable?
Counseling in emotionally charged cases is often advisable, especially if there are allegations of abuse or violence. Even if there are no safety issues, seeking counseling for yourself or family counseling for both of you and the children can be greatly beneficial in addressing emotions, making the process less painful, and coming to terms with the new realities.
Consult Divorce Lawyer Heather M. Ward
Divorce is often a traumatic experience but having a dedicated, compassionate, and knowledgeable lawyer representing you can make this experience much less painful. You can expect attorney Heather M. Ward to keep you fully informed about your case, and to be reasonable and direct about your positions on various issues in your case and what you can expect. Call Ms. Ward at (617) 903-8955 to schedule a free consultation where she will answer any questions about her and about your case.